A majority of the five-member commission gave tentative approval Monday to Gessler’s request to have his costs covered by the Republican National Lawyers Association at its election law seminar next month in Las Vegas, where the secretary is scheduled to speak on a panel.
His topic? The political abuses arising from state ethics commissions.
Commissioners put off a final decision until July 23, but three members said they were inclined to sign off on the secretary’s request.
“The secretary’s attendance at an election law seminar to tell them how his office was impacted by these processes and hear from them, how they would deal with that and how their states are dealing with similar situations, seems related enough to me,” said Commissioner William Leone, a Republican. “So I would say that if they want to pay for him to go down to speak, that’s fine.”
The RNLA conference is the same one that landed Gessler in trouble in 2012, when he used his office discretionary fund to cover his travel and lodging expenses. The commission ruled last year that Gessler had “breached the public trust for private gain” in response to a complaint filed by the left-wing group Colorado Ethics Watch.
Gessler, who has appealed the decision, accused the commission of conducting a partisan witch hunt, especially after the panel ruled in April that Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper hadn’t violated the state’s gift ban by attending for free last year’s Democratic Governors Association conference in Aspen.
The difference? The DGA paid Hickenlooper’s expenses, along with those of staffers, in consideration for his hosting and speaking at the event.
Shortly thereafter, Gessler submitted a request for an advisory opinion on attending the RNLA conference on the organization’s dime, noting that he would be speaking at the event.
The request put the commission in an awkward position, but Leone said it was important to be “consistent with our approach.”
“The principle here, the concept is, you don’t get to get travel, lodging and waivers of fees to curry favor,” said Leone. “There has to be a bona fide reason to be there that’s not related to some kind of corrupt purpose, as the Supreme Court would say, and I don’t see much risk of that here.”
Commissioners Rosemary Marshall and Matt Smith had their doubts, saying they weren’t convinced that speaking on the politicization of ethics commissions had anything to do with Gessler’s job running elections.
Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert said the ethics investigation and related criminal probe consumed months of staff time responding to subpoenas and document requests, but Marshall wasn’t convinced.
“The Secretary of State has no jurisdiction over these issues that you’re requesting that he have an exception to attend as a benefit to the state,” said Marshall. “It might be a benefit to the secretary and to him as an individual, because as you clearly stated, these are experiences that he had as an individual serving in the role of Secretary of State.”
Staiert argued that the RNLA conference was more policy oriented and less partisan than the DGA, noting that the attendees include the chairman of the Federal Elections Commission, who was appointed by the president.
“Last year, Obama’s presidential commission was there,” said Staiert. “The year before that, they did a session on war rooms.”
The Democrat Marshall was quick to correct Staiert. “When you’re saying ‘Obama,’ I’m assuming you’re talking about President Obama,” said Marshall.
The timing of the panel’s decision puts Gessler in something of a bind. He won’t know until July 23 whether the commission has officially approved his request to accept the RNLA’s offer, and the conference begins Aug. 10.
Commissioner Bob Bacon, a Democrat, pointed out that Gessler’s request was dated April 24.
“The wheels of government do move slowly, but we don’t need them to move less slowly,” said Bacon.
The commission consists of two Democrats, two Republicans and one unaffiliated voter, Estes Park Mayor Bill Pinkham.